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Churches Quietly Offer Shelter To Homeless Families

Rachael McDonald

On any given night, more than one thousand people are without a home in the Eugene/ Springfield area. Many of those are families, with school-age kids. Families can turn to St. Vincent de Paul’s First Place Family Center. With the help of more than 30 area churches, the agency can shelter families each night during the school year.

On a cold, rainy, night, Fellowship Hall at Central Presbyterian Church in Eugene is full of light and sound. Kids are shooting baskets in the cavernous, gym-like room. People are chatting, clearing dinner plates from folding tables as families finish their evening meal. Crystal Gentry sits with her 15-month old daughter Abigail, who is in a high chair. Her husband and 11 year old son are also staying here. They moved to Eugene from Klamath Falls after becoming homeless, initially living in their car.
Gentry: “I couldn’t afford my rent and I ended up losing everything. I’ve been homeless since July 28th. We were in the parking permit program, sleeping in our cars, and then the night shelter program came in and we’ve been in night shelter. And, it’s been awesome here. Everyone’s, they’ve helped me a lot and so hopefully, by Christmas I’ll have a place.”
Gentry’s husband is working. They’ve applied at an apartment and are still waiting to hear.
Reporter: “What would it mean to you to be in your own place for the holiday?”
Gentry: “Actually, I don’t know. I’d probably cry. It would be great. I just can’t wait. I’m hoping for it.” Chrystal-Cry
Gentry says she recently became certified as a registered Phlebotomist technician. She’s trying to get a job.
Gentry: “But I have applied. I’ve applied 17 times for Peacehealth. But I’m just waiting for a phone call. (laughs)”
The Gentrys are among 8 families sleeping here tonight. The Interfaith Night Shelter is run by St. Vincent de Paul. It’s a network of 33 churches that house families overnight for a week at a time during the school year. Church members volunteer to cook dinner and breakfast and hang out with the families. Andrew Sheridan is in the kitchen, helping clean up. He says he and his mom are in charge of making dinner.
Sheridan: “It’s something we look forward to every year. Each night, we go to Food For Lane County ahead of time, see what they have for us and then have to kind of be creative and figure out what we want to make for dinner with that food and what we have to add and yeah, we really enjoy it.”
Beckey Beck coordinates the Interfaith Night Shelter. She says the church volunteers do more than provide food and shelter.
Beck: “They’re warm and welcoming and non-judgmental and really love having our families here. They love cooking for them. They love spending time with them and getting to know them. And it kind of widens everybody’s view of the world so to speak.”
Beck says many church members offer extra help like haircuts, craft projects for kids. Beck says the families in this program are very motivated to change their situation. But, housing is so expensive.
Beck: “I have families who have saved money. I mean they could move into an apartment on their own. They’ve saved the money, they’ve done all the work. They’ve done everything. They just can’t find an apartment they can afford. So it makes it really difficult.”  
Besides overnight shelter, the program helps kids stay in school. Eugene, Bethel and Springfield districts each have a homeless liaison who works with First Place to make sure kids are enrolled and can get to and from school. Beck says it’s especially difficult at this time of year.
Beck: “There’s great sadness when you ask a little boy what he wants for Christmas and he says, a house. I’d like to have a puppy but we can’t have a puppy until I have a house. There’s also great joy in the way that the community comes together and helps our families at Christmastime.”
Community members can sponsor families during the holidays, or just drop off gifts for kids at First Place. Chrystal Gentry has lots of reasons to be thankful for this program. She says her 15-month old daughter Abigail just started walking. The child hadn’t even learned to crawl until they got out of their car and into the night shelter.
Gentry: “The night shelter, is, it keeps you warm. That’s what I like about it. It keeps you warm and dry and it’s great to meet new people and they help you out.”
There’s a waiting list for families to be in the Interfaith Night Shelter program. Gentry is waiting to hear if she’ll have a home by  Christmas so another family can take her place.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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